The number of people in England waiting to start routine NHS hospital treatment has risen to a new record high, as the backlog that grew during the pandemic causes immense strain on the health service. A total of 6.4 million people were waiting to start treatment at the end of March, up from 6.2 million in February, according to NHS England in newly released figures. This is the highest number since records began in August 2007.
The NHS, which has a staff shortage of around 110,000, is under immense pressure, with a high demand for urgent and emergency care and Covid-related staff absences among the factors that have caused delays.
In a letter to hospital trusts earlier this month, NHS leaders urged for retiring and recently retired doctors to be asked to continue working part-time or from home in virtual wards.
Despite a recovery plan, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said that NHS England hospital waiting lists for elective care, such a joint replacement surgery, are not expected to fall for at least another two years.
A&E and ambulance waits have also soared in some areas of the country, prompting concerns that long waits are endangering patient safety.
NHS England said there were more life-threatening ambulance call-outs and 999 calls answered in April than the same month in all previous years, while A&Es also saw the second busiest April on record.
Siva Anandaciva, chief analyst at The King’s Fund think tank, said that unless the government “grasp the nettle” on health and social care staffing shortages, patients will be left waiting in “discomfort, pain and deteriorating health”. He added: “Long waits for emergency care, previously only seen in the depths of winter, are now commonplace.
"Today’s data also show some ambulance service response times are still falling far below the national standards, even for patients with the most serious and urgent health needs."
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What else do the new NHS England figures show about the state of the health service?
A record 24,138 people had to wait more than 12 hours in A&E departments in England in April from a decision to admit to actually being admitted. The figure is up from 22,506 in March, and is the highest for any calendar month in records going back to August 2010.
Ambulances in England took an average of 51 minutes and 22 seconds to respond to emergency calls such as burns, epilepsy and strokes last month. This is down from one hour, one minute and three seconds in March, which was the longest time on record for this category of call-outs.
Response times for urgent calls – such as late stages of labour, non-severe burns and diabetes – averaged two hours, 38 minutes and 41 seconds. This is down from a record three hours, 28 minutes and 13 seconds in March.
The average response time in April for ambulances in England dealing with the most urgent incidents – defined as calls from people with life-threatening illnesses or injuries – was nine minutes and two seconds. This is down from nine minutes and 35 seconds in March, which was the longest average since current records began in August 2017.
A total of 16,796 people in England were waiting more than two years to start routine hospital treatment at the end of March. This is down from 23,281 at the end of February but is more than six times the 2,608 people who were waiting longer than two years in April 2021.